David Rodeback's Blog

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Tuesday, August 5, 2008
This Evening's Tax Increase Hearing

It was a typical cross-section of self-governing humanity. I especially enjoyed the self-refuting arguments. Oh, by the way, it's technically a 22 percent increase, not 14 percent.

I'm back now from the American Fork Truth-in-Taxation hearing. It started a little after 6 p.m. and ended a couple of minutes after 8 p.m. Since then, I've talked with one local reporter (we were both off the record) and two city councilors, and I've had my dinner. I am ready to blog.

As usual, I will mix my own impressions and opinions with whatever hearing details seem relevant and interesting -- a freedom of subjectivity which the aforementioned newspaper reporter does not have, by the way.

Roll Call

Mayor Thompson and City Councilors Dale Gunther, Rick Storrs, and Heidi Rodeback (a.k.a. MFCC) were present. Councilman LeBaron was not; he is on vacation. That's understandable, I suppose, but also unfortunate, inasmuch as he is the probable swing vote on the tax increase. Councilmember Sherry Kramer was absent and unaccounted for. Before blaming her, however, we would want to establish that she was officially notified of the meeting and that she wasn't in an emergency room somewhere. In any case, her absence, too, was unfortunate, since she is the prime advocate of a big chunk of the tax increase, which is designated for a trail at Art Dye Park. (Truth be told, I like trails, but maybe not so much this year.)

Mea(?) Culpa

City Budget Directory Cathy Jensen began the hearing with a brief PowerPoint presentation about the real increase proposed -- not the gargantuan one submitted to the County and published on the notice every houseold received. She also listed some of the ways the City is trying to cut costs.

Thanks to her presentation, I have more numbers than I had before, and this means I have yet another correction to offer. Having previously been told that the proposed tax increase is 14 percent, I naturally assumed that this would be a 14 percent increase over this year's certified tax rate, since Utah law considers any change above this year's certified rate to be an increase.

Silly me. In fact, the proposed rate of 0.002527 is a 14.19 percent increase over last year's certified tax rate of 0.002213. It is a 22 percent increase over the real baseline, this year's certified tax rate of 0.002071. I suppose this is a technicality, and I understand why the City is emphasizing the change from last year, because it's smaller. But technically the proposed increase is still 22 percent. Silly, silly, silly me for assuming otherwise.

By the way, the rate the City thoughtlessly proposed to the County, but never intended to impose, was 0.003237.

What It's For

According to the presentation, the tax increase would finish the Art Dye Trail, put a needed quarter-million dollars into road repairs, and move the American Fork Library's part-time network administrator from part-time to full-time status. Among these, I recall the road repairs being the only item no speaker at the hearing directly opposed. Finishing the trail took some hard shots in the meeting, with some suggesting returning the federal grant, which was already spent, instead of spending a lot more money to finish the trail.

The comments on the network administrator were representative of the meeting as a whole. One fellow, in a long, rambling, repetitive -- did I mention long? -- diatribe noted that he'd been using the library since about 1973, and it never needed a full-time network administrator before. One more sensible fellow noted that at his company they have a much bigger, more complex, more diverse network, and they only need one full-timer for that.

Mayor Thompson inserted some comments along the way, during Ms. Jensen's presentation, and at its end spoke for a few minutes about the five bond issues on which the voters will get to decide in November (which were not the subject of tonight's hearing).

By the way, everyone who spoke gave his or her name for the record, but I will mostly avoid mentioning the names of those who commented. If you really want to know who said what, I suppose the City will post the minutes of the hearing at the City Web site within a week or two.

The Crowd

The room wasn't full by any means, but there were a few dozen American Forkers present, in addition to City officials and staff. Almost half the crowd appeared to be senior citizens, the "fixed income" contingent.

(May I be tangential for a moment? Much as I hope someday to retire, and as unfortunate as it is when increasing costs eat into retirement income, I confess some distaste for most of the complaining I hear about the hardships of living on a fixed income. I can't snap my fingers and make more money, either. If I need more money, I have to go out and work even more than I'm already working. Maybe I will someday think I deserve not to have to work any more; if I do, I hope I don't feel entitled to the standard of living enjoyed by people who still work for a living. In any case, as a demographic group, senior citizens have more money than any other segment of the population. There are many individual exceptions, I know. But in the aggregate, I think the whole fixed-income pity party is a trifle overdone. Er, back to the hearing.)

Except for the fact that it's actually a 22 percent increase, as I noted, there were no real surprises tonight. It was a typical Truth-in-Taxation hearing. Virtually everyone who spoke was opposed to any increase. One fellow did suggest that, if the City really has done all it could to trim costs and still needs the increase, that might be okay.

All-in-all, it was a typical cross-section of self-governing humanity -- in other words, of elected representatives getting an earful from some of the folks who elected them. A few statements were well reasoned and well informed; fewer were actually articulate. Often enough the Mayor had to emphasize that the big number printed on the County notice is not what is being considered. Given his and his staff's role in sending that outlandish number to the County -- against the forceful objections of at least one city councilor (MFCC) -- it serves him right. For the record, he took his medicine patiently and graciously.

A Sampling

One gentleman listed some of the things he doesn't use in the city and doesn't think his tax money should pay for. He mentioned the skate park repeatedly, and also the rec center. (I made just such a list a while back, to illustrate the folly of this argument.) He was not the only one in the room with such an attitude. Before the meeting I overheard someone else saying that he doesn't see why we should have so many parks, when almost no one ever uses them. I don't know which parks he's been watching that no one ever uses; the ones I drive by frequently (and sometimes use) seem well used.

One person suggested that a sales tax increase might be fairer than a property tax increase. That's a plausible view, but in fact a municipality has very little latitude where sales tax rates are concerned.

A fellow said that the City seems to have Cadillac ideas, but only a Ford income.

The Self-Refuting, The Contradictory, The Fanciful . . . and SCUBA Lessons in the Irrigation Reservoir

As is often the case, we had our share of speeches that were full of misconceptions and faulty reasoning. If we had half an hour to refute every five minutes of such episodes, it wouldn't be enough. And if it were enough, most of the people would not listen, anyway. In view of this, perhaps it is fortunate that many of the speeches were self-refuting. For example . . .

One fellow described his years at a steel mill, where they regularly had to do more with less. He insisted the City could do the same. He noted that this went on, year after year, right up until the steel mill went out of business. For me, this outcome undermined the force of his argument, especially since going out of business is not a prudent option for a local government. (Pie-in-the-sky anarchists and communists still hope for it.)

One lady described her efforts to get the County to reduce her property taxes last year. She actually succeeded. She didn't realize that this happened because the County lowered the appraised value of her property significantly. Later, apparently without appreciating the connection, she noted that it's not fair to her that the County now thinks her neighbors' essentially identical properties are worth more than hers.

The fellow who insisted that we should not spend any additional money on anything eventually undercut his own argument by declaring that the City needs to buy better snow removal equipment and should pay its employees more.

More than one concerned resident seemed to believe that the local press is the official mouthpiece of City government. It's true that they do their best to report accurately and fairly -- but it's also true that they sometimes report an idea someone threw out in a meeting as something the City is Officially Considering. I'm not sure whether holding SCUBA diving classes in the irrigation reservoir was such a case or not, but one fellow kept returning to the idea as an example of frivolous expense and unnecessary risk.

In all this, the folks up front with the nameplates were not to be wholly outdone. At one point in the evening, speaking of the Mayor and Council's management of City finances, Councilman Dale Gunther noted, "We're all conservatives." For my part, I'm not sure a 22 percent tax increase and five bond issues constitute fiscal conservatism. But Mayor Thompson was sure. "We're awfully conservative," he said a little later.

The Noteworthy

Only one speech received an ovation from the crowd. Its theme was that it is fiscally irresponsible for the City to require households to cut back on their needs in order to fund the City's wants. It's a fair point, I think. The fellow who made it also threw around words like "unconscionable" and "derelict," which I thought were a bit much. But strong feelings call forth strong words, I suppose.

Utah Senator Howard Stephenson, also of the Utah Taxpayers Association, was present and spoke for a few minutes. He noted that he is a 30-year veteran of taxpayer advocacy, and that his organization helped pass Utah's Truth-in-Taxation law. He mentioned the fact that there is no adjustment for inflation in calculating certified tax rates -- which I have harped on here repeatedly -- but he didn't offer any rationale for that subtle fiscal perversity. He said that his organization applauds the City for unloading the broadband system. He suggested the City make sure it is not relying on development fees to fund the budget generally, because those revenues are uncertain. And he counseled against putting a smorgasbord of bond issues on the ballot, especially after a tax increase. He suggested lumping the most important items into a single bond issue. I was unable to speak with Senator Stephenson after the meeting, but I'll see if I can get him to comment sometime soon on the inflation problem in certified tax rates.

One fellow said that we already have walking trails in the city, our sidewalks, and that we don't need to spend money on more trails. He also said that if people want to get to Highland (one end of the proposed trail), they can get in their cars and drive there for $4.00 per gallon. Later, perhaps realizing that a lot of neighborhoods don't have sidewalks, he said we could walk in the street.

(May I be tangential again? Old-timers in these parts remember when Alpine put in sidewalks despite some opposition. This was 40 or 50 years ago, I'm told. When the sidewalks were finished, many residents refused to walk on them. They kept walking in the street as a protest.)

A couple of people mentioned that we're in a recession, but we're not. We're in an election year. A recession is when there are two or more consecutive quarters of negative economic growth (the economy recedes), and we haven't had one such quarter yet. An election year is when one party and the Big Media Acronyms band together to persuade us, for their own political gain, that we're in a recession and headed for a depression unless we elect a Democratic president.

The presidential race intruded in one other way. One speaker advocated "change we can believe in" -- an Obama campaign line. In this case, the speaker was referring to unseating in subsequent elections any city councilor who votes for a tax increase.

Former Councilman and recent mayoral candidate George Brown expressed his view that the City has made a lot of bad decisions over the years, including subsidizing commercial development on the west side, buying the broadband system, and choosing pressurized irrigation over a (forgive me for saying more expensive) treatment plant. He said the bad decisions are coming back to haunt us. In this, he's obviously right, as was Councilman Gunther when he replied that the current Council didn't make those decisions.

In Summary

This was not representative, participatory government at its best or worst, or even at its longest-winded or worst-informed. It was quite typical.

There were more people than I expected who had no idea that the County, not the City, assesses the value of properties for tax purposes. There were fewer than I expected who spoke against a higher increase instead of the proposed 14 (or 22) percent. Still, there were a enough of the latter that the Mayor had to squirm a little over the big number that got away.

At one point the Mayor blamed the numbers confusion on the county system, which is "very poor in terms of its timeline requirements." But given the County's obligation to issue the notices to all taxpayers at a particular time, I am still inclined to locate responsibility for the confusion somewhat nearer to home.

I myself said nothing at the hearing, except for a few whispered comments to the person next to me. Our six elected officials already know what I think, and most have responded to my letter personally. Last evening, I was more interested in what you think.

One final thought: It's not too late to write. The vote is next Tuesday.

Heidi Rodeback comments (8/6/08):

Here's the story on the SCUBA diving classes. American Fork City located the reservoir for the new pressurized irrigation system on land which, because of a grant to develop the nearby golf course, was previously designated 6(f) by the state. The 6(f) designation means that the land is protected for recreational use. The simple necessity of gravity, however, compelled the City to locate the reservoir at this site. (Water flows downhill in all Utah cities, I'm told, except Highland.)

The state would not allow the reservoir unless the City mitigated the change in use by (a) converting the reservoir into a recreational facility or (b) purchasing comparable lands for recreational use elsewhere.

Converting the reservoir to recreational use was by far the least expensive option. Accordingly, staff made several proposals for recreational use of the facility. The proposal that the state at last accepted was for the City to build a walking trail around the perimeter of the reservoir (outside the fence) and to make the reservoir available for, yes, SCUBA diving classes.

Plans are not yet final, but discussions have centered around the SCUBA diving class being administered by the Fitness Center, but contracted out to professional SCUBA diving schools who will themselves be required to supply equipment and proof of insurance.

Please accept this as yet another example of state and/or federal regulations binding the City to courses which common sense might question.

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